Opinion: Bernie Sanders got it right at the debate. Trump is scared of the NRA

President Trump is afraid of upsetting the NRA, Bernie Sanders said at Thursday's debate.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

Earlier this week there were murmurings of meetings between President Trump and members of Congress interested in some limited gun reforms, with a whisper that there might be an announcement Thursday.

Well, Thursday came and went. Still nada on gun reforms, despite overwhelming popular support (including among Republicans) for universal background checks and so-called “red flag” laws allowing relatives to ask a court to remove firearms from someone they fear poses a danger to themselves or the others.

And nada despite Trump’s comments last month, in the wake of mass killings in Texas and Ohio, that he would consider “meaningful background checks,” whatever that might be, and that he and Congress were working on a package of measures to address the problem.

But then the president, who deems himself to be so tough, had a conversation or two with Wayne LaPierre, the embattled head of the National Rifle Assn., and backed away from background checks like a kid who touched a hot stove.

Watching the Democratic presidential debate Thursday night, it struck me that Sen. Bernie Sanders got the situation right: Trump is intimidated by the NRA. Not respectful of the organization’s extremist views on gun rights (for example, its apparent belief that an AR-15 in every hand would make us a safe nation) but flat out intimidated.


The president is running scared.

The gun lobby’s ammunition-carriers in Congress have also warned the Republican Party of the price it will pay if it stirs the beast by broadening current mandated background checks to include online and gun show sales.

“If Republicans abandon the 2nd Amendment and demoralize millions of Americans who care deeply about 2nd Amendment rights, that could go a long way to electing a President Elizabeth Warren,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), said in a breakfast talk Thursday in Washington. “We’re going to see record-shattering Democratic turnout. The only element missing to ensure Democratic victory is demoralizing conservatives so they stay home. I hope we don’t do that.”

So rather than joining with the vast majority of Americans to combat gun violence and a culture too ready to use combat-style weapons to exact revenge, pursue sick fame or advance white supremacist views, Trump, Cruz and others in Congress join the NRA in trying to blame the problem on criminals and the mentally ill.

In Cruz’s case, his hardline stance against gun control is particularly jarring. So far this year, there have been 28 mass shootings in Texas (with at least four people wounded or killed), leaving 74 people dead and 119 people wounded or injured, according to statistics maintained by the Mass Shooting Tracker website. Less than half the dead came in the recent high-profile incidents at the El Paso Walmart and along roadways in Odessa.

So much for Cruz looking out for the interests of everyday Texans.

And, yes, criminals — violent criminals, especially — should not have access to guns, and neither should people whose mental illness makes them a risk to themselves or to others. But that’s an exceedingly small pool of people, mind you, when you recognize that the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.

And that mental illness is not a predictor of violence.

This is a gun problem and a public health problem, not a mental illness problem. We have too many firearms in civilian hands, and too many are designed not for self-defense, target shooting or hunting, but to mimic weapons of war — and are marketed as such.

No civilians should have the kinds of guns often used in mass killings — combat-style rifles and handguns capable of killing scores of people in an obscenely short amount of time.

And no one should be able to buy a firearm without passing a background check to ensure they are eligible to do so, no matter who the seller is. And that includes intra-family transfers. None of us knows everything about even our closest relatives.

The responsibility here is to public safety. If there’s a World War II relic being passed down from one generation to the next in a family, why should the public not insist that the receiving generation be certified as eligible to own the gun?

But as long as the president is running scared, and politicians like Cruz are willing to sacrifice the lives of constituents to assuage the fears of those who see a gun in the closet as the antidote to tyranny, we’re stuck.

The solution, then, becomes clear. Use the ballot box to remove the gun-lobby’s puppets from elected office.